Thursday, September 22, 2016

Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office (Updated)

I recently rewatched many of the episodes of The Office and thought I would repost my review of the show as I stand by my conclusions with only a few modifications added.

One of my favorite shows of all time is NBC's The Office. The dry wit and satire on reality TV sets it apart from TV comedy. The acting is superb and the writing and jokes are rich. Each character only adds to the narrative and intrigue of the show. Recently I watched through all nine seasons again on Netflix and noticed an important point worth exploring from a Christian perspective.

The show, at its root, is about man's obsession and need to be accepted.

Consider the evidence. First there is Michael Scott himself. Scott is woefully awkward and inappropriate yet his need to be accepted and fear of loneliness prevents him from seeing this. Scott has to be viewed both as a cool boss (made most evident by his "World's Best Boss" mug) and a funny man. Every time he is rejected as either crass, crude, or unlovable he lashes out in rage and depression.

His fear of loneliness is obvious. It is revealed that Michael was raised without a father figure, supposedly has a brother he has never met and a stepfather he strongly dislikes. The episode featuring his nephew reveals the dysfunctional of his extended family and why he views Dunder Mifflin as his real family. In one scene, Michael is seen as a child confessing on TV that when he grows up he wants to father over a hundred children so that he will never be without any friends. The series finale shows him with two phones loaded with pictures of his children he shares with his wife he met on the show.

All of his romantic relationships are dysfunctional in some way. Outside of his relationship with Jan, the blame lies solely at his feet. Michael craves their affection and obsesses over each of them even after their relationship is over. He needs them to accept him, to approve of him.

There is also his obsessive need to be the center of attention. Many scenes featuring Michael in the office begin with him casually and unnecessarily walking out of his personal office into the broader office area without purpose only to do something to draw something to himself. The annual Dundees is nothing more than a comedy routine in which he expects his employees to praise his superfluous award show. Likewise, most of his jokes and conversations were a reflection of his need for attention, not community. One of the best examples of this obsession is Phyllis's wedding where he thinks pushing Phyllis's wheel-chair-bound father down the aisle is equivalent to walking the bride down the aisle. When her father stops half-way and walks on his own thus no longer needing Michael, he marches off in anger. He later interrupts the traditional toast in an inappropriate way in order to draw attention to himself.

The Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dwight, is a sycophant and almost worships him. Michael needs this and when Dwight leaves Dunder Mifflin Michael sinks into a type of depression. In addition, Michael is intimidated by the success of others he considers a threat to him. Most notable here is Ryan Howard (who went to business school) and Jim Halpert.

Secondly, there is Dwight. For the first eight seasons (which feature Michael Scott), Dwight needs to be accepted by both Dunder Mifflin in general and Michael in particular. Dwight does everything - everything - to prove his loyalty to both his regional manager and the company. His need for acceptance is best evidence in the following quote:

In one season Dwight actually leaves the company and works for Staples. He later returns after Scott, in the midst of his own depression, wins him back.

Dwight also seeks acceptance by proving his superiority to his co-workers. He is superior as a paper salesman, farmer, a man, a fighter, a volunteer sheriff deputy, tight-rope walker, boyfriend, Game of Thrones nerd, etc. The list is endless. Dwight's obsession of proving his superiority is the fuel behind many of Jim's pranks against him. In the final season after Dwight finally becomes regional manager, Jim convinces Dwight to be the assistant to the assistant to the regional manager. This would make Dwight both the number 1 and 3 in the office because no one else was worthy of being his number 3. The running joke that illustrates this superiority mindset is his made up title given to him by Michael of "Assistant to the Regional Manager." Dwight prefers the more dominant title "Assistant Regional Manager."

A cursory web search of some of the classic Dwight quotes reveal this need to be accepted. Most notable in this regard is a season 5 episode where Dwight confesses, "Nothing stresses me out. Except having to seek the approval of my inferiors."

Then there are the other characters. Ryan Howard needs to be rich and successful even if he has to cut corners. After quickly climbing the corporate ladder of Dunder Mifflin, Ryan is arrested for corruption only to return later to the show. Ryan is an arrogant jerk who uses people for his own purpose. At one point he starts a social media company taking money from his co-workers.

Erin Hannon replaces Pam Beasley as the receptionists of the office. She is an orphan who constantly longs to know her mother. In the finale she reunites with both of her birth parents. Toby Flenderson is rejected by everybody. Michael especially loathes him while the rest grow tired of him. He tries to run from his rejection overseas only to return to the Scranton branch. He is divorced multiple times - a reflection that everyone rejects him. It seems that only his daughter likes him and that is at risk at times.

Angela Martin is a self-righteous fundamentalists that wants to be viewed as such. In reality, however, she is a hypocrite who commits adultery against every boyfriend and husband outside of Dwight whom she finally marries in the finale. While married to "the Senator" she gives birth to Dwight's child. She tries to tell everyone the baby is premature in order to explain why she gave birth before the ninth month anniversary of her wedding. She finds acceptance in her self-righteousness

Andy Bernard is a salesman (later turned regional manager) who constantly brags about his alma mater Cornell (ever heard of it?). He is constantly trying to prove himself to his rich parents who think of him as a failure. In the final season Bernard quits his job to chase his vain dream of stardom. He becomes a star, but only as a viral joke on YouTube. His final line is of him longing for "the good ol' days."

Even Pam Beasley is subject to this indictment. She is discontent with being a lowly receptionists and is always afraid to take risk. She knows her relationship with Roy isn't healthy but can't seem to break it off even though the wedding planning never ends. She wants to be an artist but fears failure especially after no one comes to her gallery. Of all of the characters, she finds redemption the earliest in Jim Halpert who alone, except for his brief flirtation with Athlede in the final season, is the exception to the acceptance rule. Jim is the only character that doesn't fully fit this pattern in the series. He isn't brash, outlandish, a drunkard, stereotypical, or anything else. He's rational, gifted, and "cool." Jim is everything the other characters want to be and everyone, secretly, resents him for it. Michael is intimidated by him, Dwight fear Jim will defeat him, and Pam won't measure up to him.

In terms of redemption, The Office is a comedy that offers little until the final season when the show transforms into a semi-drama. By the end of the series, the characters that find peace find it in love. Jim and Pam, for example, work out their differences when Jim discovers that Pam is more valuable than a dream job while Pam discovers that Jim is more valuable than her comfortable life in Scranton. Dwight and Angela discover the same thing. Angela, the fundamentalist hypocrite who is an adulterer whose heart is broken by a husband guilty of the same, finds peace in her marriage to Dwight. Dwight, similarly, finds his "perfectenschlag" as a humble manager at Dunder Mifflin and as the husband of said Angela. Michael, too, finds love as both a husband and father. He leaves the show after getting engaged. He is finally happy. Even Ryan and Kelly seemingly find happiness in their witty escape in the series finale.

Yet those who do not find fulfillment are those who do not find love. Andy, for example, concludes the series by regretting abandoning Dunder Mifflin referring to it as "the good old days." He now has a job at his alma mater and is a viral superstar online, yet none of it matters. He spent his adult life fantasizing about Cornel and now that he has returned as an employee, he fantasizes about his past life as a paper salesman. In the plot of the story, Andy lacks love.

As a Christian, such redemptive hope is not redemptive. Romantic love, as defined by the culture, is fickle at best. Jim and Pam, from what I've witnessed in pop culture, do seem to possess one of the strongest marriages in modern television, yet even it is flawed. Erotic love is no Savior and it will not bring joy. Only Jesus can.

This is really what makes The Office so good. It is more than jokes and comical routines, but well-written satire that tells us something about ourselves. While mocking reality TV, the characters hold up a mirror to the viewer. Each of us have this same longing in our hearts. We may not act like Michael Scott of Kevin Malone, but that same desire is still ours. The good news of the gospel, however, is that in Christ we are accepted. We have nothing to prove.

For more:
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office (Updated)
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 1 
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 2
Christianity and the Small Screen: "Smallville"
Christianity and the Small Screen: Fox's "House, M. D."
Christianity and the Small Screen: NBC's "Crisis"
Christianity and the Small Screen: FBI Files  
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